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Column Fri Apr 26 2013

Pain & Gain, Mud, The Big Wedding, Renoir & Violeta Went to Heaven


Pain & Gain

If you have a low tolerance for people in movies doing dumb shit, then you're probably going to hate the new Michael Bay film Pain & Gain, a film filled with exactly that. But if you go in realizing that much of the story about three personal trainers who engage in bizarre and violent criminal acts to make money they could never make at their jobs is true and that these gentlemen were, in fact, experts at being idiots, you'll probably enjoy the hell out of this over-the-top example of the American Dream gone utterly sideways.

The setting is 1990s Miami, a place where body builders (or men and women who look like body builders) are a dime a dozen, but that doesn't stop Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) from dreaming big, so much so that he gets busted for running a scam on unsuspecting investors in a side gig outside of his training job. But he's an ambitious man who gets a job at a high-profile gym (run by Rob Corddry's John Mese) and triples memberships in just a couple of months, along with his partner Adrian (Anthony Mackie), whose overuse of steroids has left him impotent with raisins for balls. The two men are tired of training filthy rich clients, and they decide the best course of action is to somehow find a way to not just kidnap one of these people, but force them through torture to sign over their entire fortunes to Daniel. Why didn't I think of that?

It actually takes some time to get used to seeing Wahlberg and Mackie so grotesquely pumped up, but when they recruit ex-con Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) to work at the gym and to become a part of their ridiculous plan, they don't seem quite as foreboding. Daniel targets a particular rich asshole client, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), who is practically begging to get punched every time he opens his mouth. And it's when this kidnapping goes down that some audience members might go from laughing to cringing as things take a disturbingly violent turn. I never stopped laughing, since even their attempts at getting Kershaw to sign over his bank accounts and assets are insane. But it's when they try and kill him (and continuously fail) that are especially hilarious. The truck tire rolling right over his face was particularly great; I felt like I was watching a Looney Tunes cartoon.

In many ways, Pain & Gain is the film people think Michael Bay makes all of the time, only this one has a very smart story (with a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) about dumb people who think there's a short cut to success. And there are few things more satisfying than watching smart actors play dumb characters. This is the closest Wahlberg has come to playing Dirk Diggler since Boogie Nights, and he excels at it playing the passionate, persuasive fool. Mackie can do anything, but it's his moments with girlfriend/nurse Ramona (Rebel Wilson, who continues to be funny by being understated) that were among my favorite.

Probably the biggest shocker of the film is Johnson, who I'm always convinced is trying to protect some image until he embraces a character like Doyle, who starts out the film doubting they should even do this, but once the money comes rolling in, he dives headfirst into women, coke and a lavish lifestyle that makes him the first to suggest another kidnapping since he's run out of funds. There are few things more satisfying than watching The Rock snorting blow off a stripper, or barbeque a bunch of sawed off hands in the front yard.

Also on hand is Ed Harris, playing Ed Du Bois, a retired private investigator hired by Kershaw to track down the guys who did this to him. Harris comes in late in the film, but his laid-back, intelligent portrayal makes the capture of these boneheads seem like a foregone conclusion. I also liked Ken Jeong take on Johnny Wu (clearly riffing on infomercial legend Tom Vu, he of the yacht filled with bikini-clad young ladies), a fast-money motivational speaker whose commercials and in-person consultation convince Daniel that he's lagging behind his financial possibilities.

There's a point in the back half of Pain & Gain where a title card comes up, saying something to the effect of, "Please remember, this is based on a true story." (I believe it's somewhere around the grilling of the hands scene.) And it's easy to think that much of this is made up, but it's so outrageous that it feels legit. But more interesting to me is Bay's direction, which still manages to include some of his patented commercial-ready slick filmmaking, but also includes quite a few more lingering shots, allowing the actors to really dig into their performances. The film makes Miami look like paradise, loaded with bikini bodies and tanned muscles. This is Bay's paradise.

For those who think Bay's films are loaded with empty-headed characters and no plot, Pain & Gain represents a film where the character are meant to be empty headed, but placed in a story that does their braintrust justice. It's sometimes vulgar, mean and bloody to excess, but there are many of us who see the value in such attributes. This is a film that strives and succeeds to be funny and entertaining, and it pushes its actors in directions they rarely, if ever, go. Pain & Gain is one of the only films where Bay's skill as a technician of film is successfully combined with a fascinating story. Just don't eat anything before you see it, is all I'm saying.


Opening to not nearly enough fanfare in many cities is writer-director Jeff Nichols' follow up to Take Shelter about a wanted man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey, continuing his impressive streak of great performances for the last couple of years), who is befriended by two boys (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, two of the most authentic child performers I've seen in quite a while) on a small island in the Mississippi River. The boys are drawn to the island when they find a small boat in a tree, the victim of one hurricane or another, but they negotiate with this stranger after they hear his story about killing a man in Texas and searching for Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the woman who loves him and just happens to be waiting for him in town at a motel.

Also waiting for him in town are bounty hunters (led by Joe Don Baker), but Mud is able to get a small amount of assistance from friends in town, including a ridiculous buddy played by Michael Shannon (star of Nichols' last two films, including the wonderful Shotgun Stories) and Sam Shepard as Blankenship — not exactly a father, but certainly the closest thing Mud has. Witherspoon seems to impress me the most when she dials it back a bit, and I'm not sure she's ever been more so than in Mud.

Much of the joy from watching Mud comes from never being able to take your eyes of McConaughey — not because he's good looking, but because it's like watching a coiled snake that you aren't sure is poisonous or not. He rarely lets us know what he's about to do, whether it be something kind or something terrifying. Much like the film, Mud the man is unpredictable and we are drawn into this fascinating story by some terrific performances, including Sheridan, who also appeared in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. The film essentially belongs to Sheridan, who has a subplot about trying to court a slightly older girl at his school and getting shot down. Naturally, Mud has a few things to say on the subject.

Nichols has pieced together a gorgeously shot third feature, with one of the most intriguing actors working today at its center, and I'm genuinely concerned that few people will take a chance on it. It doesn't have the end-of-days overtones of Take Shelter, but that doesn't make certain sequences any less scary or the movie any less impressive. This is a classic Southern tale of friendship, justice, romance and vengeance, with a dab of the bizarre and dangerous. Let is wash over you and take control of your brain for a couple of precious hours. The film opens in Chicago at AMC 600 N. Michigan Ave. theaters.

The Big Wedding

I've never actually opened a review by quoting the press notes, but I had to take a peek to see what lies were being spun in the notes for The Big Wedding, which features an all-star cast acting like fucking assholes for 90 of the longest minutes you'll ever experience. In the notes, the movies is described as being "an uproarious romantic comedy about a charmingly modern family." Translation: Everybody yells and swears and talks about sex, especially the old people. When Robin Williams playing a Catholic priest is the most subtle thing about a movie, you know you're in trouble.

The Big Wedding is, shockingly enough, about a bunch of mostly white people (with a few Latinos thrown in so that the most offensive characters in the film can show how awful they are by making racist jokes) coming together at the home of Don (Robert De Niro) and his long-time significant other Bebe (Susan Sarandon) for the wedding of Don's adopted son Alejandro (Ben Barnes) to Missy (Amanda Seyfried, who looks angry at her agent that she's in this movie; she should be). Don used to be married to Ellie (Diane Keaton) and they had two biological kids, Lyla (Katherine Heigl) and Jared (Topher Grace). Turns out Don cheated on Ellie years ago with her best friend Bebe, and the three seemed to have worked most of their issues out, but it's a rom-com, so clearly more issues need to be dealt with for our benefit.

As an added bonus, Alejandro's biological mother and sister (Patricia Rae and Ana Ayora, respectively) are on the guest list. Williams' priest is performing the service, and it's weird how most of what he does is react to the idiots in the family rather than tell his own jokes. David Rasche and Christine Ebersole play Missy's parents (and the aforementioned racists), who'd really rather not have brownish grand-babies.

It's almost impossible to believe that the filmmakers went for the R rating with this one, but indeed they did. Writer-director Justin Zackham (who wrote the appallingly bad The Bucket List a few years back) seemed to think that his remake of the 2006 French comedy Mon frère se marie was worth spicing up with a few choice bad words, but it's no improvement. The characters don't resemble human beings and their behavior is miles from the way human behave to the point of maddening frustration.

Keaton continues her career plan of stumbling through dialogue as if her inability to find the right words is in any way amusing. De Niro plays Don as a philandering slob who refuses to marry Bebe for reasons we're never quite clued into. Jared is a 30-year-old virgin doctor who is being hit on by every nurse, so that's believable... about as much as Ayora suddenly throwing her spicy self at him almost the second she meets him. Heigl is a miserable human being who I'm pretty sure ended her marriage because she assumed her bitchy ways would force her husband to eventually, so she thought she'd beat him to the punch. I know most right-thinking human creatures don't like Heigl, but she is outright hateful in this film. Moving on.

What else can I tell you about The Big Wedding? Every family secret in three families is revealed over the course of the weekend. Heigl vomits on De Niro, which he deserves for being in this runny puddle of shit. Jokes are made about one character's plastic surgery by other characters who need to take a long look in the mirror and have their memory checked. Ugh. There's another line in the press notes that says something about the family hopefully getting through the weekend "without killing each other," but I was actually rooting for several murders while taking in the wretched The Big Wedding. I don't say this often, but if you find yourself in a theater this or any weekend to see this movie, you really need to examine your life priorities and your taste in films.


The most surprising thing about writer-director Gilles Bourdos' examination of the final era (circa 1915 on the French Riviera) in the life of Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (played with appropriate decrepitude by Michel Bouquet) is that Renoir isn't just about the painter. It's also about his sons, in particular the middle child Jean (Vincent Rottiers), who went on to become a filmmaker of some note with his groundbreaking works Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion. We see Jean as he's visiting his 74-year-old father, recovering after being injured during World War I, and while their relationship is often contentious, Jean cannot help but be inspired and motivated to try a form of art once the war is over that is different from his father's accomplishments.

The film begins as a lovely young woman named Andree (Christa Theret) arrives at the Renoir home to become the painter's latest (and last) model. While she doesn't take over the estate from its occupants (including Renoir's youngest son and various housekeeping and cooking staff), she does inject some much needed energy into the environment. Apparently she had been selected as a model by the recently departed Mrs. Renoir, so her arrival is something of a surprise and it sparks overwhelming memories in everyone. But she turns out to be the perfect addition to the household as both a model and a force of good. When Jean arrives, it doesn't take long for her to first see her nude and then fall in love with her somewhat brash mannerisms.

Renoir portrays the painter as the classic father who does nothing but criticize those around him — especially his children — but he thinks he's helping them learn and grow, which apparently means more to him than them liking him. Andree doesn't respond as well to his outbursts and reacts in kind, which is exactly what he needs to shut him down. As the film goes on, Renoir becomes more sickly, and the film transitions into more of a look at Jean's wartime experience, which led to his some of his finest works as a director.

Much like Renoir's paintings, the film has a lush, warm hue to it, and I won't lie, Theret looks great in various stages of undress (although I loved it when Andree complained that Renoir always painted her too fat). Last Thanksgiving, I spent a day in Philadelphia just to go to the Barnes Foundation (the subject of the great doc The Art of the Steal), which features the largest collection of Renoir's paintings in the world (nearly 200), so my exposure to his wonderful works was fresh in my mind when I saw Renoir, the film. The film spends a fair amount of time showing us and explaining his style and brushstroke technique, and I found it fascinating stuff. The film may come across as more of a prestige piece to some, but I found it a bittersweet look into an artist's final days, and another artist's early days. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Violeta Went to Heaven

Chile's submission for the 2012 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar was this angst-ridden account of the life of Violeta Parra, a singer, guitarist and artist who seemed to make a living being miserable. And I don't say that in the a bad way. Her music (performed beautifully by actress Francisca Gavilan) cut to the heart of every heartbreak or political injustice she sung about. Her devotion to the oppressed and poor knew no bounds, and although she had the potential and means to live comfortably during her career (she died in 1967), she often barely scraped by herself.

Directored by Andres Wood, Violeta Went to Heaven is based on Parra's son and a television interview she gave (which is re-created here as something of a narration), and both give us a wonderful look into this complicated woman, who lived by emotions and threw away much for love. She was the first Chilean to have artwork hang in the Louvre, and she was an impassioned defender of indigenous peoples around the world. Gavilan utterly loses herself in this performance, so much so that I'm not sure I can ever see her in any other part from this point forward. Parra fell into deep pits of depression when a man left her, especially when her relationship with Swiss flautist Gilbert Favre collapsed. And it's so frustrating to watch the way this strong, creative woman threw her life away more than once because of a stupid man. But she was also a faithful member of Chile's Communist Party, and when she spoke on behalf of workers or the poor, all signs of self doubt vanished.

Wood's direction keeps things as gritty and realistic as Parra's own existence. She thought she was an ugly woman that no man should want to be with, but in fact, except for a few small scars on her face, she was a passionate, beautiful woman (Gavilan is a dead ringer for her) with low self-esteem, which resulted in her suicide at age 49. Violeta Went to Heaven is a simple film about a complex woman and a creative force that brought much pride to her nation and found new ways to sing the songs of lost love. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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